Songs of Springtime
E.J. MOERAN (1894 - 1950)
Songs of Springtime (1933) [14:28]
Weep you no more, sad fountains (1922) [2:31]
Gather Ye Rosebuds (1924) [1:14]
Robin Hood Borne on his Bier (1923) [3:04]
The Jolly Carter (1944/1949) [2:10]
The Sailor and Young Nancy (1948/1949) [3:06]
Irish Elegy (arranged by Desmond RATCLIFFE (b.1917) from the Air from Serenade in G (1948)) (1955) [2:38]
Arthur BENJAMIN (1893 - 1960) Three Mystical Pieces (1925) [5:30]
Edgar BAINTON (1880 - 1956) Open Thy Gates (1931) [2:18]
Night (1911) [2:15]
In the Wilderness (1914) [4:00]
Leslie HEWARD (1897 - 1943) The Witches’ Sabbath (1919) [6:13]
City Chamber Choir of London/Stephen Jones
rec. 28/29 October 1995, Vestry Hall, London College of Music. DDD

One of the joys of my younger life was singing, in a small vocal group, music from all periods. I especially enjoyed the 20th century English partsongs we sometimes were allowed to perform. I particularly remember Moeran’s Under the Greenwood Tree (the first of the Song of Springtime) and The Sailor and Young Nancy which was my introduction to this composer’s choral music. It was, however, some time before I actually heard any of it! Hearing the Revolution Records LP (RCB 7) of the Proteus Choir, under Vernon Handley, in English choral music, which included the Moeran set, was an ear-opener and it whetted my appetite for more of the same. But it was much later still that I heard his choral masterpiece, Phyllida and Corydon. I feel sure that this CD will whet many appetites for this now lesser-known side of English music.

The composition of partsongs, and larger choral works, was undertaken with glee by English composers, not least because they knew of the large number of amateur choirs in the UK and that scores would be purchased, making money for the publisher. If the composer hadn’t sold his copyright outright these would bring in royalties for him. From George Macfarren, who wrote some rather good Shakespeare settings in the middle of the 19th century, through Coleridge-Taylor, Havergal Brian to Herbert Howells and beyond, English composers have revelled in writing for massed voices and this delightful disk gives us a brief view of some of the fruits of their labours.

Moeran is the best known composer represented here and it is good that we have not only the wonderful Songs of Springtime, but also six other pieces ranging from folksong arrangements to settings of Elizabethan verse, four of which are première recordings. The small (23 voice) choir is the perfect size for this music, for it is intimate, as too large a vocal group would obscure the individual lines. The singers’ enjoyment of this music is obvious for they bring a bounce to the pieces and there is a good variety of timbre and tone between each work. I did enjoy the two humorous folksong settings, which are too often given as throw-away things, but here, heard in the context of other choral music by Moeran, they emerge as something rather special. Little polished gems of settings. The arrangement of the movement from the orchestral Serenade is particularly pleasing.

Both Arthur Benjamin and Edgar Bainton are almost forgotten men these days were it not for a handful of pieces - Jamaican Rhumba by the former and some choral pieces by the latter - although Chandos, and others, have recorded some of Bainton’s orchestral and chamber works which are well worth investigating. Benjamin was a fine pianist, he taught Britten at the RCM, and he is credited with giving the British première of Rhapsody in Blue, although there is a claim that this distinction fell to Billy Mayerl. Oddly, both men spent time in the Rühleben camp in Germany during the First World War - Bainton because he was visiting Bayreuth and was arrested as a male enemy alien of military age and was interned. Benjamin was in the Royal Flying Corps and was shot down over Germany and captured. After the armistice Bainton became the first Englishman to conduct the Concertgebouw Orchestra, in two programmes of English music. There is one other point of interest with regard to the two composers. Benjamin was an Australian who came to London to study and remained here, apart from the Second World War which he spent in Canada, whereas Bainton, in 1933, accepted the directorship of the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music (now known as the Sydney Conservatorium of Music) and spent the rest of his life in Australia.

Benjamin’s Three Mystical Pieces are brief, but very telling. The first is rather Baxian, but the other two show a restraint and a more individual voice. I can well imagine that these were very popular during the years preceding the Second World War.

Bainton’s contributions all date from the time before he moved to Australia and they are, in some respects, fairly typical of the kind of choral music which was being written at the time, yet there is something about these works which lift them above the norm. It’s that indefinable something which one can feel but it’s impossible to quantify. These pieces have that, whatever it is! You can taste it as you listen to the music.

The final work is by a man whom most wouldn’t even think of as a composer. A conductor - yes; one of the best this country has produced but whose career was cut short by ill health. A man of whom Sir Adrian Boult said, “There was no one to touch him, in my opinion; he'd have gone a very long way, if he had lived.” Except he couldn’t go a long way for he died of tuberculosis at the early age of 45. Had he lived, he would have taken over the helm of the Hallé Orchestra in 1943 and British musical history would have been quite different. The Witches’ Sabbath is a setting of Ben Jonson and was Leslie Heward’s first published work. Despite its title, it’s quite a charming work, with no surprises. This is a fine example of partsong writing and it is lovely.

This is a superb CD which should go a long way to reminding many just what a joy choral music, and singing, is, and what a wealth of music there is for a capella chorus by British composers. The performances are very good and the acoustic, if a little dry, is bright and clear. The notes are good and there are full texts printed in the booklet. At a fraction under 50 minutes the disk could be accused of short measure but there is quality here and that matters. Please don’t miss this exciting CD.

Bob Briggs  

see also review by John Quinn